As a teenager in Roseburg in the early 2000s, ZZ Ward often traveled north to Eugene for live music. While here, she got involved in the local hip-hop scene. Already a hip-hop fan, Ward was equally influenced by her older brother’s rap CDs and the blues music her father, “Daddy” Ward, played with his Umpqua Valley band. Both styles show up in Ward’s sound to this day.
Years later, Ward returns to town Nov. 13 at the Hult Center, supporting her first independent release, 2023’s Dirty Shine and her latest, non-album single, “Evil on the Inside.”
Remembering those early times in Eugene in a phone call with Eugene Weekly, Ward tells of how she asked local hip-hop musicians like Michael Kay, performing as Scoob, “How do I sing with you guys?”
At first, they wondered who this precocious Roseburg teenager was, but Ward sang with her dad, and once she was offered the opportunity to prove her skill, Eugene hip-hop artists used her on their recordings. Around that same time, Ward frequently performed in town, opening for artists like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Naughty by Nature.
From there, Ward moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, and for a while she found mainstream music industry success. She released Til the Casket Drops on Hollywood Records in 2012, with guest appearances from rappers Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs, and she continued to record with the label until her contract ended in 2020. During this time she also performed on several major morning and late-night TV talk shows.
Referring to her own music, Ward says, “I take anything that’s inspiring, or pisses me off in my life, and I get through it in my songs.”
Since then, Ward has struck out on her own with her first independently produced album on Dirty Shine Records, which she founded in 2021 after her Hollywood Records contract ended. She is a multi-instrumentalist, writing on guitar and piano, and playing harmonica as well as singing.
Her first release on the label, Dirty Shine, is a powerhouse mix of modern playlist-friendly pop, leaning a bit more into her acoustic tendencies without losing her interest in hip-hop music and production style. Meanwhile, the grooves are undeniable.
The album opens with some surprising Ennio Morricone-style spaghetti Western textures, and throughout there’s a celebratory mood, with songs like “On One” recalling Rihanna, and “Dead or Alive” slotting nicely next to Adele. Elsewhere, “Tin Cups,” among the most blues-influenced tracks on the album, features a guest appearance from soul singer Aloe Blacc.
Ward now hopes her new-found independence will lead the way for other artists. “I think it’s really empowering,” she says, referring to her latest album, “and I would hope that it empowers other people.” Musicians are often frustrated by their own ambition, she adds, thinking, “I need a big break, I need a deal, I feel helpless.”
In contrast, Ward adds, “It’s a really special time for independent music. You can do so much stuff by yourself, more than I ever thought you could. I want to prove to myself and my son: I want to keep doing this — I can make it happen.” ν
With pop singer Lanie Gardner opening, ZZ Ward performs 7:30 pm Monday, Nov. 13, at the Hult Center; tickets start at $28, all-ages.